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No right to despair

As we enter into five years of Conservative rule, those of us who are relatively privileged need to be reminded of a vital principle: we have no right to despair. We won't pay the highest price.

Anti-austerity protest in London We can't forget the less 'newsworthy' struggles. Flickr/Michael Candelori. Some rights reserved.

Protest depends on hope. Naming wrongs, painting a picture of their effects, analysing their causes, exploring the alternatives: all of these depend upon the presence of hearing minds whose response can have an impact.

Just three months into a five-year stretch of elective dictatorship, its bars now being strengthened by the creation of new Conservative Lords, it is hard to hold on to such hope.

Yet the other principle of protest is no less clear: the relatively privileged – of whom I am one – have no right to despair. It is not we who will pay the highest price.

Last week I encountered two women, in two different contexts, with very different backgrounds. Both, though, are in their late 50s, un-partnered and have either no or no effective family supports. Neither has a private pension entitlement. Both have worked or looked for work their entire adult lives. One is a care worker, doing long, physically and emotionally hard hours on the minimum wage. The other has three zero-hour jobs, low-paid though relatively skilled, all of which deliver highly erratic bunches of work; all too often deserts of no-work alternate with tsunamis of too much, so that she risks failing (and hence losing) one or other employer.

One is also without neighbourly and almost without friendly companionship. She has moved multiple times in her life; her current housing is short term. Unless she can find full-time and better-paid work, she will be unable to remain in the area because of high rentals. She will have to move again, start yet again.

Both are tired. The care worker is deeply so. She is gazing ahead at eight more years' work before she reaches state pension age. Perhaps by then, the retirement age will have receded still further. Is it like the horizon: one never reaches it? For many middle-aged women, it has begun to seem so. Knowing my benefit expertise she talked to me because she just hoped, desperately, quietly, that there might be some source of money that would enable her to reduce her working hours – some easing of the relentlessly stony path ahead of her. From where she's standing, the only likely change she can see is the ever-present risk of losing even what she has: neither job nor house is secure.

I could suggest nothing. There are no benefits to help her beyond what she already has. To cut her hours would be to risk debt. She smiled at me and went quietly away.

Neither of these women is newsworthy. Their situation is a common one. Neither comes near breaches of human rights. They are not absolutely poor. They (currently) have food, a roof and warmth. It is simply that their lives are narrowed, greyed out, by their relative poverty. Their intelligence is under-used; their power to give their rich emotional strengths is abused and sapped, or disregarded.

No one notices. They carry on as best they can, in this land of plenty. The restaurants and cafes, clothes shops and designer kitchen outlets overflow with custom in the rich city where I live. In the jobs they do, these women service that wealth; they are members of the massive workforce which makes it possible. They pass quietly by its outlets.

Two other people will not leave my memory. Youngsters, partners, 19 and 20. They're not care leavers. Not (so far as I know) victims of abuse. Nothing newsworthy. Simply, their family homes have fallen apart. Nor do they want to return: they're not wanted 'at home' and there's no room for them. They want to set up together, work and make a future. At the moment, they're sofa-surfing, each with a different friend.

Only, how can they do it? Both have jobs, part time, minimum wage and insecure of course, but jobs. Unfortunately, even with housing benefit they can't afford the rents anywhere in reach of those jobs. Nor can they afford a car – not without increasing the debt that's already starting to burden them. Where in this wide world of England are they to go, where they can achieve their modest goal? Who will advise them? Who will be on their side when they run into the difficulties that pounce and snap and bite at every corner of our complex, unforgiving 'society'?

And when/if Cameron and Osborne remove the housing benefit that is their sole external support (as under-25s without a child, already they don't get working tax credit), what will they do then?

I have no right to despair. There are indeed glimmers of hope. Is the support for Jeremy Corbyn a sign that people are starting to say NO, as people in Scotland started to say NO until sufficient numbers were trapped by English fear-peddling politics and the empty last-minute promises destined – all-too-inevitably – to be watered down to suit the convenience of the status quo?

It isn't really NO we need to say. It's YES, to a life-giving society not structured around the fathomless appetite of bulk shareholders, property investors and their friends. A society perhaps less globally powerful, less absolutely rich, more equitably so.

We need to bring together people of skill, experience, pragmatism, on the side of this YES. It has to work. Greece shows all too clearly that saying Yes from a position of weakness does not work. Even where IMF says the debt is unsustainable, the relentless grasp of creditor-nations does not ease; the relentless claim that there is only one perspective from which economic realism can be seen pounds nightmarishly on.

No right to despair. I just wish there were some way of speaking to those relaxed, laughing crowds in their bright clothes who throng into restaurants in Cambridge. I wish they could, however momentarily, feel the presence of those quiet women and those desperate youngsters. I wish they could become aware that their stiletto sandals walk upon those unseen lives; that nothing but chance gives them the good things and those women and youngsters none of them; that there has to be another way. 

I wish my own awareness of privilege could be more fruitful. 

About the author

Deborah Padfield has been a Citizens Advice benefits adviser, trainer and supervisor in Cambridge, Peterborough and north Essex, where she still works. In the past she lived and worked in London's East End. She has considerable experience of mental illness and is on the steering committee of The Cambridge Commons.

 


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